By Chris Thompson
(Check back for GRAMMY.com's ongoing South by Southwest conference coverage, including blogs and artist interviews as part of our GRAMMYs on the Road series. Meanwhile, visit The Recording Academy on Facebook and Twitter for SXSW updates.)
It all begins and ends with Woody Guthrie.
While Bruce Springsteen was one of the more widely heralded attractions on Thursday at the SXSW conference, he was quick to point out that Guthrie's spirit is at the core of music that matters.
Thursday's proceedings got underway with renditions of Guthrie's "This Train Is Bound For Glory" and "Pastures Of Plenty" by Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LaFave, who were later joined by Juanes for a cover of "This Land Is Your Land." The Colombian GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY winner, who also performed a pair of Guthrie songs in Spanish, described the legendary songwriter's work as being about "hopes, dreams and the possibility to change the world, if we decided to change what's inside us."
Following the performances was Springsteen's keynote speech, during which he paid homage to Guthrie as well as a litany of other artists who inspired him to become a musician, including the Animals, the Beatles, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Phil Spector, and Hank Williams.
"Why do we continue to talk about Woody so many years on?" Springsteen asked. "He never had a hit, never went platinum, never played an arena, and never had his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone." And yet it's Guthrie who continues to be, in Springsteen's words, the "ghost in the machine."
Springsteen also recalled being signed by legendary A&R man John Hammond at a time when he, along with artists including Elliott Murphy and John Prine, were all being touted as the new Dylans. "The old one was only 30, so I didn't even know why they needed a f***ing new Dylan," said Springsteen.
Nor, for that matter, do we need a new Bruce Springsteen, given that the current one proved his incredible vitality late that night with a two-hour-plus performance as powerful as the ones that made him a legend in his own right. Backed by an E Street Band nearly double in size, he opened his performance at ACL Live at the Moody Theater with an elegiac performance of Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," before performing favorites such as "Thunder Road" and "Badlands," as well as brand-new anthems "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Jack Of All Trades" from his most recent release Wrecking Ball.
And the ending?
Following guest appearances by the Animals' Eric Burdon and Jimmy Cliff, Springsteen was joined by a stage full of guest talents, including Arcade Fire, Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Garland Jeffreys, the Low Anthem, and Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello for a roof-shaking rendition of "This Land Is Your Land."
Guthrie must surely have been pleased.
Meanwhile, in another room in the Austin Convention Center, an energized and at times feisty debate was taking place between artist and label representatives, with GRAMMY-winning artist Gloria Gaynor having no trouble surviving the discussion. How Stella Got Her Masters Back, one of the panels produced by The Recording Academy, discussed the termination rights for sound recordings. More plainly, the artists' right to terminate their copyright transfer to a label and regain ownership of their works. The label representative said no way, while The Academy representative and artist lawyer said yes. And Gaynor, of course taking the artist's side, weaved great stories about working with her label in the '70s, such as her label's insistence that her GRAMMY-winning "I Will Survive" be a B-side, when Gaynor recognized the hit.
More Guthrie celebrations took place throughout the day, including a Woody Guthrie At 100 panel moderated by GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli and featuring Guthrie's children Arlo and Nora Guthrie, among others.
"We're taking this from California to the New York island," said Nora Guthrie as she announced the 2012 tribute tour marking the centennial of her father's birth. She also noted the significance of this being an election year, suggesting that Guthrie — a populist songwriter if ever there was one — would approve of the timely effort to call attention to the injustices his songs so powerfully addressed.
And across from the tribute of sorts that was happening at the Moody Theater, the GRAMMY Museum hosted a Woody Guthrie Centennial Tribute, as part of its yearlong Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration, featuring performances by Ray Benson, Colin Gilmore, Arlo Guthrie, Shannon McNally, and Joel Rafael, among others.
Thursday proved that this land was Guthrie's land, at least for a day.
(Come back tomorrow for an update on Friday's SXSW events.)